Fury over the carnage caused by four bombings in two weeks and fear of further attacks are pushing Russia to the verge of renewed warfare in Chechnya, as popular and political pressure grows for retaliation against separatist forces blamed for the explosions.
The bombings, which have killed 294 people, have led political leaders to all but renounce the 1996 cease-fire agreement with Chechnya, which has been the staging point for guerrilla raids into neighboring Dagestan. The military is preparing more cross-border bombing runs, and troops are being shipped to Dagestan.
As public outrage has become white hot, authorities have rounded up thousands of ethnic Chechens and many other people with dark skin, who are thought to be from Russia's Caucasus region, on the streets of Moscow.
Russians, meanwhile, are organizing security around apartment buildings. "If there are one or two more explosions -- God save us from it -- then probably there will be anti-Chechen pogroms. I think it is conceivable," said Igor Mintusov, a sociologist at the political consulting agency Nikkolo M. He compared the effect of the bombings to Russians' profound shock during last year's ruble crash.
Russian political leaders, including some who opposed the two-year war in Chechnya that ended in 1996, are demanding military strikes on Chechnya. After a closed-door meeting of the upper house of parliament today, participants said Prime Minister Vladimir Putin was given a virtual blank check for what he called "the government's toughest measures."
"War has now become inevitable, to my regret," political analyst Sergei Markov said. Russian military commanders "will try not to enter troops, but to block Chechnya and to bomb it. The people will agree."
Both Chechen President Aslan Maskhadov and Chechen guerrilla leader Shamil Basayev have denied involvement in the wave of bombings.
The current mood is in stark contrast to the war weariness of three years ago, when Russian troops straggled home bloodied and defeated by Chechen rebels. Although the Russians were pushed out of the rebellious region, a cease-fire agreement postponed determination of Chechnya's final status for five years. The cease-fire brought welcome relief to many Russians and was a major factor in President Boris Yeltsin's successful reelection bid.
Today, many Russians seem willing to risk a new military offensive in revenge for the bombing attacks.
"The first reaction to the explosions was confusion, disorientation and panic," said Igor Bunin, general director of the Center for Political Technologies. "But at the same time came a different trend; people are preparing psychologically for a prewar or a war situation."
Andrei Piontkovsky, a political commentator, said military strikes on Chechnya are certain. "Judging by the mood of our political class, it is almost inevitable," he said. The reaction to the attacks "is to bomb Chechnya into the Stone Age. Unfortunately, I am sure this is the thing they are certain to do now. The Chechens will react with more bombs. Moscow will react with pogroms against people from the Caucasus. It is a blueprint for the destruction of Russia."
The drumbeat comes at a time of deepening political uncertainty here. Parliamentary elections are set for December, a presidential vote for next summer. Yeltsin is isolated and without political allies, his position weakened by allegations of corruption against top Kremlin aides and his family. Only recently, Yeltsin remarked to an aide that the first Chechen war was his greatest mistake in office.
How he will react to demands for a new war is uncertain. So far he has steadfastly resisted any move -- such as declaring a state of emergency -- to slow or derail the coming elections.
Even if Yeltsin were to authorize new attacks on Chechnya, the sorry state of the military has only worsened since its prior humiliation there. Recently, in just six weeks of fighting Chechen rebels who are seeking to establish an Islamic state in neighboring Dagestan, 230 Russian troops have been killed and another 875 wounded. Russian soldiers lack equipment, and are paid less than 90 cents a day.
Specialists also doubt that Russia has the resources to build a "quarantine" zone around Chechnya, as some have suggested. Alexander Chernogorov, leader of the Stavropol region, which borders Chechnya, called for imposing a cordon sanitaire three miles wide around the rebellious republic. But the acting prosecutor general, Vladimir Ustinov, said Russia cannot afford such a plan.
Still, Russia is laying the groundwork for a return to hostilities. Putin said today that the 1996 cease-fire agreement is not a legal document, and the Chechens have been "flouting these agreements all these years." Vladimir Zorin, chairman of the nationalities committee of the lower house of parliament, the State Duma, said the accords "have exhausted their potential." Yegor Stroyev, chairman of the upper chamber, the Federation Council, said today the accords were not supported by the Constitutional Court.
Russian authorities have said they will not hesitate to strike inside Chechnya. In words eerily reminiscent of the 1994 justification for the assault on Grozny, the Chechen capital, Ustinov declared that it is legal to go to war inside Chechnya.
"We should not be afraid to cross into the Chechen territory to destroy militants and restore constitutional order," he said. "Radical measures have to be taken within Chechnya itself," the prosecutor general added. "The armed forces can be employed if there is a danger of the disintegration of the state." Defense Minister Igor Sergeyev said bombings would be carried out "throughout the territory of Chechnya, irrespective of where the bandits are."
Moreover, the general staff was reported today to be moving more men and equipment into place in Dagestan. According to the Interfax news agency, a 300-man Northern Fleet marine battalion was sent there recently and five paratroop battalions numbering 2,500 also are being deployed, along with others from the Pacific, Black Sea and Baltic fleets, and motorized divisions from around Moscow. Military planners do not intend to send in ground troops, which still remains a sensitive issue. Strong criticism was voiced in parliament recently that the Defense Ministry had sent fresh recruits to Dagestan without proper training.
Instead, the plan is to bomb the Chechens, especially in villages and camps along the border with Dagestan. Some of the bombing runs already have taken place.